Dec 02, 2022 Last Updated 6:29 AM, Nov 29, 2022

Islam and democracy!

Published: Jul 25, 2007

Elizabeth Fuller Collins and Ihsan Ali Fauzi

Campaigning for an end to corruption, the Prosperous Justice Party (Partai Keadilan Sejahtera, PKS) showed itself a force to be reckoned in the 2004 elections. In April’s legislative elections, it surpassed most expectations by increasing its share of the vote to 7.34 per cent from 1.4 per cent in 1999 when it was called the Justice Party (Partai Keadilan). In Jakarta, PKS won 25 per cent, the most of any party, surpassing Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party with 22 per cent. These two new political parties dominated the election as many voters in the capital went in search of fresh faces and new policies.

Islam is the solution’

The Justice Party, the forerunner to the PKS was established in July 1998 by activists in an Islamist dakwah movement. Dakwah, which means ‘call,’ refers to the obligation of all Muslims to call others to the faith. The dakwah movement that emerged on university campuses during the 1980s was inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwanul Muslimin) of Egypt. The powerful slogan of the movement, ‘Islam is the solution’, suggested that Indonesia’s multiple problems could be overcome only by a society that returned to Islamic moral principles and established an Islamic government.

Within the Islamist dakwah movement there are differences about the best strategy for establishing Islamic government. Members of Hizbut Tahrir (Party of Liberation) argue that Islam is no longer a powerful force in world politics because Muslims have beýn divided by a nation-state system imposed by the West. Muslims must therefore reject Western forms of government, including democracy, and reestablish the caliphate as a government for all Muslims. Like Hizbut Tahrir, neo-Salafy groups reject democracy as un-Islamic, but they believe that violent struggle is necessary to resist efforts by the United States and Israel to destroy Islam.

In contrast to these views, the founders of PKS argue that democracy provides a way to establish an Islamic government. They say there is no necessary contradiction between Islam and democracy.

In an interview at PKS headquarters on 10 July 2003, PKS Chairman Hidayat Nur Wahid described PKS as a ‘centrist Islamic party’ occupying the middle ground between radical Islamist groups and mainstream Muslim organisations. At one extreme are neo-Salafy groups which endorse violence. Next is Hizbut Tahrir, which views democracy as un-Islamic but rejects violence. Further toward the centre is the PBB (Crescent Moon and Star Party) and its supporters. They endorse the Jakarta Charter, seven words in the draft of the 1945 Constitution that would impose Islamic law on Muslims. On the other side of the spectrum are the Muhammadiyah modernists and the traditionalist Nahdlatul Ulama, by far Indonesia’s two largest Islamic organisations. They both reject the slogan ‘Islam is the solution’ and work for a better society through democratic political means.

In 1999, PKS joined PAN (National Mandate Party), the party of Amien Rais, to form a Reformasi Faction in the national legislature. As PAN is technically a nationalist party rather than an Islamic one, this decision disappointed Islamists and signalled PdS’s pragmatic political approach. PKS voted with PAN against adopting the Jakarta Charter in 2000.

Hidayat Nur Wahid explained that rather than the Jakarta Charter, PKS was committed to the ‘Madinah Charter’, which advocates Quranic concepts, such as equality, rule of law, justice, and Islamic social services. When the issue of the Jakarta Charter was raised again in 2002, however, PKS abstained from voting.

‘Democracy is for losers’

In the lead-up to the July 2004 presidential elections, the party decided not to run its own chairperson, Hidayat Nur Wahid, as a candidate. Instead, PKS was courted by General Wiranto, who in 1998 had forged a relationship with Islamist groups in opposition to the democracy movement. A breach opened up in the party between a faction led by Hidayat, which favoured maintaining the party’s alliance with Amien Rais, and the faction led by the Secretary General of PKS Anis Matta, which favoured Wiranto.

The ‘hard-line’ faction pointed out that Wiranto’s wife and daughters wear the Islamic headcovering (jilbab) and his son-in-law is a member of PKS. They argued that Wiranto had a chance to win the election with PKS support, while Amien was not likely to make the final round. Taking a cynical view, the Wiranto supporters reportedly dismissed the proponents of democratic reform with the statement, ‘democracy is for losers’ — only the powerless demand democracy. The split illustrates the tension in PKS between those who seek power in order to achieve Islamist goals and younger idealists committed to Islam and democracy.

After much debate, less than a week before election day, PKS made Amien Rais its official candidate. No final vote of all members was taken, but regional leaders interviewed estimated that Amien Rais was the choice of as many as 70 per cent of PKS supporters. In the final round of the presidential election on 20 September 2004, Chairman Hidayat Nur Wahid announced that PKS would support Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, or SBY. Some PKS factions opposed the decision because they saw SBY as a secular political leader opposed to implementing Islamic law. The SBY supporters argued that his election offered the best chance for democratic reform, good governance, and an end to corruption.

Challenges ahead

PKS faces two major challenges in the next five years. The first is maintaining its image as the party of moral reform while still engaging in pragmatic politics. The second is extending its base outside universities and appealing to a broader range of society.

PKS has earned an impressive reputation as a ‘clean’ party. In 1999 it opted to play the role of an opposition party untainted by the politics of interest. When President Abdurrahman Wahid appointed the party’s first chairman, Nur Mahmudi Ismail, to the cabinet, he gave up his position as head of the party. When PKS was offered a ministerial position by Megawati, its leaders chose to remain in opposition.

Over the past five years, PKS representatives in provincial and district legislatures have become famous for resisting the temptations of corruption. In 2004, PKS campaigned for clean government, citing ‘24 reasons PKS is the enemy of slippery characters’, based on press clippings about PKS representatives who refused to become involved in corruption. To cite just one example, in 2003, the South Sumatra Provincial Legislature voted to disburse Rp 7.5 billion (US$ 900,000) from the Provincial Operating Budget to the 75 members of the provincial legislature. Only the PKS representative refused to take his cut. When newspapers picked up the story, the resulting scandal forced the other legislators to return the money.

As the largest party in the Jakarta legislature, PKS now faces the challenge of finding a way to stop money politics in the legislature and entrenched corruption in the bureaucracy. As the party of moral reform, will PKS seek to win the governorship of Jakarta and campaign to clean up prostitution, gambling and drinking in the capital?

The second challenge, that of broadening the party’s support base, may be even tougher. PKS emphasises the unity of the Muslim community, or ummah, and resists addressing different class interests. In an interview in 2003, PKS chairman Nur Wahid explained that the gap between the rich and poor is not a political but a religious problem. He argued that as long as PKS upholds Islamic values, such as provision of social services, it can effectively meet the needs of the poor. He added that PKS is a cadre party, and that PKS has no interest in recruiting a mass following ignorant of Islamic principles.

To establish a wider base of support, PKS has relied on providing aid to victims of violent conflicts and natural disasters and to the poor. By contrast, PKS leaders point out, other parties enter society only for election campaigns. Yuswar Hidayatullah, a PKS representative in the South Sumatra legislature, gave an example of how PKS ‘supports the people’. In 2004 residents of three settlements on the outskirts of Palembang sought assistance from legal aid lawyers when the governor ordered their eviction from state-owned land to make way for a green belt. The lawyers contacted PKS because the party opposed forced eviction. PKS representative Yuswar was able to facilitate a meeting between the villagers and the governor to delay the forced removal.

Yuswar said that even if PKS wins only a single seat, it can facilitate communication between the people and government. In partnership with non-governmental organisations, PKS can represent marginalised people. Demonstrations are no longer the only channel for people to voice their aspirations and protests.

The question remains: Can PKS win a broader base of support through efforts such as this and provision of humanitarian assistance to victims of floods, landslides and other disasters? Or must the party develop policies that address the collective needs of the working classes and the poor?

For more information on PKS, check out the party’s website at

Elizabeth Fuller Collins ( is an Associate Professor in Classics and World Religions at Ohio University.
Ihsan Ali Fauzi a PhD student in Political Science at Ohio State University.

Inside Indonesia 81: Jan-Mar 2005

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